Most couples avoid retirement investment conversations

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By Brian Goslow

While a recent study reported that 92 percent of couples agree that they communicate with each other about family finances, only 43 percent said they make decisions for retirement investments jointly and only 28 percent said they would be comfortable if in an emergency one partner has to assume responsibility for their joint retirement finances.

Participants in the 2013 Fidelity Investments Couples Retirement Study were at least 25 years old, married or in a long-term committed relationship and living with their partner, and had a minimum household income of $75,000 or at least $100,000 in investable assets.

Other findings:

•Approximately four in 10 couples that aren’t yet retired disagree as to the lifestyle they expect to live in retirement.

•One in three couples disagree as to their ideal vision for retirement.

•While men are significantly more likely to envision indulging in their favorite sports, women are more likely to envision spending time with family, enjoying hobbies and volunteering in their local community.

•Thirty-six percent of couples either don’t agree, or don’t know where they plan to live in retirement.

•One-third of couples approaching retirement don’t agree on whether they will continue to work in retirement.

•Although many couples have joint bank accounts, 30 percent disagree on whether their investments are held jointly or individually.

•Three in 10 couples disagree as to the primary beneficiary on both their life insurance and retirement accounts.

So why aren’t more couples having those important retirement investment discussions together?

Part of the problem, said Dorian Mintzer, a board certified retirement and money and relationship coach and co-author of The Couples Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Transitioning to the Second Half of Life (Lincoln Street Press), is that people aren’t trained to be good communicators and that tends to carry into a relationship, especially on the touchy subject of money.

That’s particularly true if one person tends to be the over spender and the other avoids bringing the subject up for discussion in terms of it having serious impact on their financial wellbeing.

“Many people, and particularly if they’ve been in a long term relationship, find it easy to hear the first few words and think they know what their partner is going to say,” Mintzer said. “And they may be right — but they could also be wrong.”

When you decide to truly sit down and talk about your finances and how they’ll affect your retirement plans, you should make that important life conversation your priority. “Turn off the TV, turn off the computer, turn off the iPhone and each take a turn talking and listen,” Mintzer said.

If one person has been handling the couple’s finances throughout the marriage, it can be an extremely difficult discussion. Mintzer shared the story of a client of hers who she had encouraged to talk with her husband about how to handle the family’s finances in case of an emergency.

“His initial response was, ‘Do you want me to die or something?’ and she was really trying to help him understand that she was nervous, that he was older than her, and she just wanted to understand what their finances were and what the questions would be to ask so that she could manage them if she had to manage them on her own.”

Mintzer said it’s a worst-case scenario if a spouse has to deal with money issues at a time of crisis and doesn’t know what the family account numbers are, what the account passwords are, which banks the money is in and who is handling the money — and if that’s someone the person can trust.

It is important for couples to talk about their spending, saving, investments, how they want to leave money and what their obligations and responsibilities are to their children and other family members, she said. Some of those discussions can become heated and nothing is gained if one partner feels under attack.

“A way of avoiding fighting is to start with using ‘I’ statements and avoiding ‘you’ statements,” Mintzer said. “If you say ‘You always spend too much,’ that’s attacking that person, whether it’s meant that way or not; to them, it feels that way. If you can start conversations with, ‘I’ve been thinking about …’ or ‘I’m worried about …’ and avoid the ‘you’ statements, which tend to blame and shame, it helps to get it started.

“It’s helpful, if you don’t agree with what you’re being told, if you can just say, ‘Tell me more and help me understand why it’s so important to you’ and appreciate what you’re hearing — even if you don’t agree,” she said.

If you don’t feel comfortable proceeding on your own — or even if you do — meeting with a professional financial planner might help to get the conversation started, Mintzer said.